On June 30, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will visit Washington D.C. to meet with President Barack Obama, a highly anticipated meeting given the tensions between the two governments, and leaders themselves, over the past two years.
Historically speaking, relations between the U.S. and Brazil have never been strong. While an in-depth discussion on the history of Washington-Brasilia relations is outside the scope of this analysis, it suffices to say that both nations have strived to be regional leaders, with the U.S. obviously enjoying the upper hand. For example, during the 1964 coup in Brazil (which installed a military regime that ruled until 1985), the U.S. sent a carrier group, headed by the USS Forrestal, to monitor the situation and intervene in favor of the coup-plotters if necessary.
Relations took a turn for the worst in 2013, when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the intelligence agency he worked for had spied on foreign leaders and entities. U.S. espionage operations on Iran or North Korea would hardly be shocking news, but Snowden revealed that the NSA had spied on U.S.-friendly leaders, including Rousseff. According to reports, the Brazilian head of state’s phone calls were monitored, “as well as Brazilian embassies and … the state oil corporation, Petrobras.” This prompted severe tensions between Brasilia and Washington, resulting in Rousseff canceling a trip to Washington in October 2013. She also heavily critiqued U.S. intelligence operations during a speech at the United Nations in September of the same year.
However, bilateral relations may finally be set to improve. Rousseff was elected this past October 2014 for a second presidential term, coinciding with Obama’s remaining year and a half in office. Already, there have been several positive diplomatic initiatives such as Vice President Joe Biden’s presence at Rouseff’s inauguration in January. Moreover, the two heads of state met at the Summit of the Americas, which was held in Panama this April. The Summit is generally regarded as a major victory for Obama, as he was received well by his fellow hemispheric leaders and even met with Cuban President Raúl Castro in a historic face-to-face. The U.S. president also met with Rousseff, which has been interpreted as a strong step toward improving relations. Obama praised Brazil by declaring that “[it] is obviously not only one of the most important countries in the hemisphere, but is a global leader on a whole range of issues.”
Hence, Rousseff’s upcoming visit to Washington is important, as it will help maintain this diplomatic momentum. Nevertheless, the Brazilian leader probably does not expect to go back to Brasilia empty handed. She has declared her interest in bilateral cooperation in areas like “alternative energies, science, technology, and education.” Moreover, Brazil’s objective is to continue making headway in the U.S. weapons market following the purchase by the U.S. Air Force of some 20 Super Tucano military aircraft, produced by the Brazilian company EMBRAER.
Finally, there is the question of whether the trip will commence negotiations toward a visa-waiver regime. This option has been on the table for some time, but an agreement has not been reached. According to data from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, over 2.2 million Brazilian citizens entered the U.S. in 2014. This makes Brazil the country with the fifth most travelers coming to the U.S. in that year, behind only Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
In other words, Brazilians want to continue coming to the U.S. — though how well the Brazilian middle class will be able to maintain its purchasing power in view of the country’s economic problems is another story.
The Brazilian head of state’s trip comes after a series of major (generally peaceful) protests throughout Brazil. Some of the most outspoken protesters demanded the president’s impeachment. Given these domestic woes — not to mention the recent Petrobras scandal and Rousseff’s alarmingly low popularity — she could benefit greatly from not only a diplomatically successful trip to Washington, but also a trade or tourism-related agreement that will broadly benefit her citizenry. It’s in Rousseff’s best interests to deliver something positive when she returns from Washington.